Chester Live’s Dan Read looks into what the future may hold for local venues when social distancing legislation comes into force on their reopening.

‘Although it feels like summer outside, we’re in a period of dark days for our local venues in what is unprecedented times. Plans for 2020 have gone out of the window due to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. But are we coming to the end of lockdown now?

Local venues have suffered significant financial losses since the start of the lockdown. Government support has been hard to call upon, and has not be helped by the high rateable values of businesses locally.

Nationally, none of the 800 venues signed up to the Music Venue Trust have been successful with any claims on their Business Interruption Insurance. This includes local venues.

Live music venues are facing the reality of having to potentially reduce their capacities by 40-50%, or more, after lockdown restrictions are lifted if they are to open. Some English venues are looking at an early July opening period, but in the other devolved nations restrictions on venues could last a lot longer.

The Governments 50-page Covid-19 recovery plan states that ‘at least some ‘pubs could open as early as 4th July 2020 (England only). The document states that businesses considered ‘higher risk’, which includes live music venues, would be required to meet specific ‘Covid-19 secure guidelines’. These are expected to be released before the summer (mid-June 2020) but are expected to include some sort of social distancing guidelines.

‘Some venues which are, by design, crowded and where it may prove difficult to enact distancing may still not be able to reopen safely at this point, or may be able to open safely only in part’ the report states. The report also states these ‘Covid-19 secure guidelines’ will be monitored and enforced, though it’s not clear how this will be done.

Will these scenes like this be witnessed again in the near future?

Other guidance has stated, ‘that your venue should only be open for any part of your operation when you can deliver safety to the public in a format that is economically sustainable and practically deliverable for your business.’ Is that even possible though?

A large percentage of Chester’s venues are within buildings with some sort of historical importance or a listed building, and therefore significant changes to a venue’s structure are impossible.

The implications will affect venues differently dependant on their business model eg are they a live music venue ONLY or do they also operate as a restaurant and/or bar. On average, venues take around 70% of their income via their bar/restaurant. Most businesses believe they won’t be able to operate without financial support.

So, what are the options for our local venues and what are their plans if social distancing is a requirement to being able to reopen?

Jamie Northop (Alexanders Live) has been very vocal about the struggles the lockdown has put on his business and has been a visible face on social media during this time,  ‘If Alexander’s is able to open, but has to enforce current social distancing guidelines, we would be so limited on capacity that we would probably only be able to trade at a reduced capacity.

Let’s say for arguments sake at around 25%. Once we are able to trade then staffing costs, utilities and other fixed costs will all return, and we would unlikely be able to reduce these to match the trading capacity we would be operating under, which in turn would mean the business would not be viable without assistance.

Jamie Northop – Alexanders Live, Chester

Our main focus is live music and it would be very difficult to be able to social distance a band or people on a dance floor, but, say we could, how would we afford to pay the band their fee if we could only have 30 people in the venue? Should we start charging £30 per ticket to come along? Would anyone pay £30 to see a band they had previously seen for a fiver? No of course not. It’s ludicrous.

If we can trade at 25% capacity, for example, will my rent be reduced by 75%? Will my gas and electric be reduced? My insurance premium? My staffing costs? We may be able to have a few less staff working but we wouldn’t be able to reduce by 75% or anywhere close.

What I will say is that we are members of the Music Venue Trust who will assist us with a project called REVS (Reopen Every Venue Safely). We will follow the guidelines set out and we will do all we can to keep our customers and staff safe.’

Adam Roberts owns two venues in Chester, The Cornerhouse and The Cellar on City Rd, Chester, ‘In short I think it will be impossible to enforce or to make a profit (with social distancing in place). We can’t pay extra staff and have less customers, and we won’t be able to pay musicians when there will be no atmosphere. If we reopen with distancing it will have to be with table service and food. My preference would be to wait and open properly when allowed but god knows when that will be.’

The Cornerhouse, Chester

The potential issues of opening under social distancing legislation isn’t just limited to Chester venues. In Northwich the Salty Dog has helped build a live music community, with a focus on local acts. Owner Chris Mundie said, ‘I think the cost of social distancing measures isn’t really an issue; bright yellow tape on the floor and hand sanitiser is relatively cheap. The problem is we need a full house at least once a week in order to keep the lights on, or at least the beer cold. Once we turn the cellar cooling back on, we are running at a significant cost per month in electric alone. Add on staffing and we really wouldn’t be able to cover the bases with a limited capacity.’

The Salty Dog, Northwich

However, he is positive about the future, even if there will be a period of hardship, ‘I think we are all looking forward to getting the bar open again, but at the moment we are following the guidelines and sticking to the rules like everybody else. It’s important that we all stay positive, live music will always have a place here and we’re lucky to have an incredibly supportive community around us. We will work to the guidelines and it will be tough for a while, but I’m confident we’ll be back in full swing at some point down the line.’

Over in Hoole Darren Lea at The Faulkner had the following to say in regards to opening under social distancing legislation, ‘Obviously we will have to review our staff training, purchase new PPE and additional sanitiser products which will in turn incur additional costs to the business. This will need to be managed in line with decreased capacity and lower revenues.’

In terms of safety Darren said, ‘Above all this has to be our primary consideration as the safety of our staff and customers is paramount to any decision (to re-open). In terms of a reduction in capacity as with anything we would need to look at where this puts the business financially. PPE will cost money, and in terms of monitoring, it’s all down to management and training’

The Faulkner, Hoole

The effect on local musicians has also been catastrophic. No venues being open has meant musicians have had no income for 10 weeks now. Globally we’re talking about a $27bn industry which has not just stalled but ground to a halt in 2020. Online performances have sprung up everywhere but earn musicians little or no income.

Although the streaming revolution has been vital for music discovery and promotion, the real money remains in live performances.

‘A typical artist gets 65% to 75% of their income from live performances,” says Mark Mulligan, analyst at Midia Research. “But it will take ages for consumer confidence to recover and return in mass numbers to live music. Toilets, ticketing and cloakrooms are all cluster points. What are club venues going to do, those with capacity of 150 to 200 people? They won’t be viable with two-metre social distancing.’

How will social distancing legislation work for live music venues?

Not being viable might be a phrase we hear a lot of in the coming weeks and months.

In Chester, Docket No. 64 has already closed its doors, and although they were only a tiny part of the city’s live music scene, their closure could signal dark days ahead.

Legislation is coming and is already in draft form, though I’ve not personally seen it. It is expected though that over the next 2 weeks that legislation may seep out into the public domain, if not be fully published.

Social distancing is incompatible with businesses selling social interaction though.

I guess we hold our breath and wait and see what affect it will have on an industry already very much in crisis.’